After the first year of the Steve McClain era left much to be desired with three total victories against Division I opponents, beating DePaul and winning on the road against a Big East team was a significant milestone for UIC.
But the win came with a significant consequence. Sophomore wing Dikembe Dixson, who went into the DePaul game averaging 22.2 points, tore his ACL and will miss the remainder of the season.
Dixson was the Horizon League Freshman of the year last season after averaging 19.8 points per game but shot only 36% from the field, leaving much room for improvement in efficiency. Dixson’s sophomore year was off to a promising start. His scoring went up, as did his field goal and free throw percentages. Then the non-contact injury occurred, leaving UIC without their best player and focal point offensively.
UIC must now regroup and move forward without Dixson. Replacing his production won’t come from one player, but from several. The Flames brought in a 2016 recruiting class that was arguably tops in the Horizon League. The four freshman from the 2016 class will be counted on to assume the scoring void left behind.
Against Loyola this past Saturday, the freshman group of Godwin Boahen, Tarkus Ferguson, Marcus Ottey and K.J. Santos all provided much needed offense in an overtime loss. Boahen was averaging 7.9 points per game with Dixson healthy, but he scored 19 points against Loyola. Ferguson was averaging 8.5 points per game with Dixson, but he added 12 in the loss to Loyola.
Santos replaced Dixson in the starting lineup and had his best game of the season, He chipped in 14 points and 9 rebounds in 33 minutes, all of which were career-highs.
Santos was a starter early on in the year, but was relegated to the bench because he was mired in a massive shooting slump. He gained much needed confidence against Loyola, drilling a three to start the game and another to start the second half. He shot an impressive 4-of-6 from three after making 2-of-16 from beyond the arc entering Saturday.
UIC came into 2016-2017 with heightened expectations thanks to a solid returning core coupled with highly-regarded newcomers. Those expectations will now be tempered with the loss of Dixson, but some positives can still be drawn this year.
Boahen, Ferguson, Ottey and Santos will take on even bigger roles. UIC will need them to. They’ll undergo a baptism by fire which may lead to rough stretches this season.
Despite the quartet’s 55 points against Loyola, they combined for a whopping 15 turnovers. Those are freshman mistakes now, but the minutes they will earn this year will translate to becoming experienced sophomores next year.
And Dixson will join them as a redshirt sophomore himself.
While it certainly isn’t ideal to sit out the remainder of the season, Dixson will be able to watch film in hopes of cutting down on his propensity to turn the ball over. He’ll be able to work on his 3-point jumper, another area of improvement. Dixson will also work on strengthening his lower body as part of his rehab, which could lead to adding much needed strength and weight to a slim 200-pound frame.
UIC still has the talent to improve upon their three conference wins last year, even without Dixson. It’ll come down to how well UIC’s freshman respond to adversity during Horizon League play. McClain and his staff have UIC trending upwards, and they’re primed to breakout sooner rather than later.